The first time Erik Gudbranson was traded, he was the last to find out.
“I was on a safari in Africa, the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Botswana on a riverboat cruise. There’s no cell service there,” the Vancouver Canucks defenceman explains.
“I made a transfer through three countries, finally made it to my hotel in Zimbabwe, got some Internet, and my phone just blew up. My girlfriend had taken care of talking to my agents and setting everything up.”
It was May of 2016. Seventy-two hours after the Florida Panthers had shipped their third-overall pick in the 2010 draft northwest for Jared McCann and a couple of picks, Gudbranson sat down for lunch at a Zimbabwe hotel with friend and former teammate Shawn Matthias, who broke the news after scrolling Twitter.
“It was pretty funny,” Gudbranson recalls. “I went to sit down at the table, and he was dying laughing: ‘Dude, you just got traded.’ I said, ‘C’mon, no chance.’ He said, ‘Yep. You’re gonna be a Canuck now.’
“I hit the panic button quick a couple minutes after that, but it was good.”
As an impending unrestricted free agent, the Ottawa native is nearing the end of his second consecutive one-year contract and is well aware his name has been popping up in trade rumours.
If it happens again, he won’t be blindsided.
The most recent scuttlebutt involves the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are looking to improve their D core, and the speculation picked up steam when Don Cherry gave a potential Gudbranson-to-Toronto deal his thumbs-up during the first intermission of Saturday’s Leafs-Canucks tilt.
“[Rumours] are part of it. I’ve been traded once, so if it was to happen again, I think I’d know how to deal with it,” Gudbranson told Sportsnet Saturday, motioning to the nameplates around the Vancouver dressing room.
“We’re together every single day. There’s a much bigger picture I’m worried about, and that’s winning hockey games. I’m able to compartmentalize it.”
As of Jan. 1, Gudbranson has been able to re-sign with Vancouver, but with the injury-riddled Canucks tumbling down the Pacific Division standings and Gudbranson’s potential rental a smart bet to fetch picks and/or prospects, there has been little urgency to re-up.
Ironically, Gudbranson’s most stable NHL contract was his three-year entry-level pact. Since then, it’s been a string of one- or two-year show-me deals for a divisive player who can spark a heck of an argument between old-school hockey men and the possession-metrics crowd. That should change with Gudbranson’s option to hit the open market this summer.
“You’d like to be sitting on something that’s quite a bit longer and have some stability, but I get to come to a rink and play a game every single day, so it’s really not that bad,” Gudbranson says.
If the Maple Leafs are hunting for a minutes-logging right-shot NHL defender on a pure rental basis, who’s out there?
Among the teams we feel safe in pronouncing lottery-bound (i.e., more than five points out of a wild-card spot), here’s the complete list, in order of average ice time this season: Detroit’s Mike Green, Gudbranson, Arizona’s Luke Schenn, Vancouver’s Alex Biega, and Ottawa’s Chris Wideman. That’s it.
Of that tiny group, Gudbranson most fits the Leafs’ needs.
As the injury to second-pairing defenceman Nikita Zaitsev has underscored, the Leafs require a right-side defender more so than a power-play weapon like Green, an expensive veteran who should be moved for futures to the highest bidder before the Feb. 26 deadline passes.
So the rumour Vancouver Province writer Patrick Johnston floated Thursday that Toronto has offered left-shot defence prospect Andrew Nielsen and an unspecified draft pick for a few months of Gudbranson’s services does makes some sense. Removing a core member off the current roster does not.
Also making sense: Toronto filing a waiver claim for righty Cody Franson. The former Leaf was placed on waivers Monday by Chicago and carries a modest $1-million cap hit.
In not-so-breaking news, right-shot Connor Carrick has yet to establish himself as a “Babcock guy.” Babcock relies more on Roman Polak in important situations, and Monday the coach revealed that if rookie call-up Travis Dermott shot right, he would’ve been on the big club all season. (Lefty Dermott will play his off-side Monday versus Columbus beside lefty Jake Gardiner on the second pair.)
A few days ago, Babcock was asked directly about Carrick and said this: “Some guys are just in every night no matter what they do; they’ve just earned the right to be. Other guys are on a tryout every night, and you think it’s going to end after one year and it usually lasts about 10, their whole career.”
The right side needs one or two trusted guys — preferably younger and faster than Polak — who don’t require an everlasting tryout.
With Ron Hainsey and Zaitsev/Polak being so leaned upon to eat up PK minutes, we do expect Lou Lamoriello to hire them some support over the next five weeks.
But until 2017 first-rounder Timothy Liljegren develops into the real deal (2020?), or that mythical UFA signing (Drew Doughty! John Carlson! Erik Karlsson!) or aggressive blockbuster trade (Jacob Trouba, Chris Tanev) for that bona fide top-four right shot who’s never really available, Toronto must rely on patience, lefties and good-enough-for-now plug-ins.
If your team is deep enough, Gudbranson (zero goals, two assists) is a third-pair guy. At 26, he is five years younger than Polak. At a $3.5-million price tag, he’s also more expensive.
“Erik is hard to play against and gives us some push back. When you talk about intangibles, he’s a leader in our group with young players and will stick up for his teammates. There is an important role for him with our team,” Vancouver GM Jim Benning told The Province in November.
“There’s a mutual thing with his agent. Let’s just see where this goes. From their perspective, they want to feel comfortable in a new city and find his niche. We agreed to let it play out and when the time is right, we’ll talk about [an extension].”
What Gudbranson could bring his suitors is five years of NHL experience, hard penalty-kill minutes (2:15 per night in Vancouver), size (six foot five, 220 pounds), and an element of nastiness that Toronto, which ranks 25th in penalties, arguably could use a little more of.
“I’ve got pissed off a lot in this league,” Gudbranson cracks.
Thinking back to that day in Africa, Gudbranson believes having been traded once has prepared him to deal with another potential move.
“You have to understand how this ball rolls. Contractually, I knew it was a very real possibility when I signed the [one-year] deal,” Gudbranson said.
“You can’t worry about stuff that’s out of your control in this league. We play and practice so much, there’s so much more to deal with in the this dressing room.
“If something happens, it happens.”